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Thoughts on “Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation.jpg
By Henry Ossawa Tannerhttp://freechristimages.org/biblestories/annunciation.htm, Public Domain, Link

One of my favorite religious paintings is the “Annunciation,” by Henry Ossawa (1859-1937) was an internationally renowned African-American painter and the son of a African-Methodist Episcopal bishop. He painted several paintings of Biblical themes. I read that he painted the “Annunciation” after a trip to Egypt and Palestine.

This painting is such a beautiful work of realism.

The angel:

Where other artists have painted the Archangel Gabriel as a human being with wings, Tanner painted him as a beam of pure radiant light reminiscent of a lightsaber. Indeed, angels have no bodies. What an awesome site it must’ve been for Mary to have beheld. I’m sure she must have been in awe but not frightened out of her mind as some may have been at the sight of an angel. God is bright, living Light which casts out all darkness and is fitting that his messenger should exhibit this quality. The light permeates the whole room with a radiant glow.

The Virgin Mary:

She looks very Jewish, Middle Eastern. Mary has the look of simple, quiet wonder. Her humility shines! Again Tanner comes through with a realistic depiction. I can’t help but think it is like looking in to the actual historical event. It must’ve looked almost like that in reality. Mary’s clothes are also very Middle Eastern looking. There is a detail to the right that I really love. Traditionally, artists have always depicted the Blessed Virgin wearing a blue mantle— and there it is, very much present in this painting!

The entire room looks very historically accurate for a first century Palestinian dwelling. You can also see the jars and such.

I’m not sure if I shared this elsewhere on this blog but I sure should have: in Exodus of the Old Testament, the glory cloud, the Shekinah, came over (“overshadowed” is the Biblical term used) the tent of meeting, the holy place where God (depicted as the cloud) dwelt. Mary is the new tent of meeting, the new tabernacle in which God dwelt for nine months. The Holy Spirit – – God – – overshadowed her, and God the Son, Jesus, was conceived in her womb. Appropriately, in Lourdes there was a tent for Eucharistic Adoration. I had just finished reading from Exodus to Deuteronomy prior toLourdes… So symbolism was not lost on me. As for the indoor Eucharistic Adoration chapel, the tabernacle was in the form of a golden pillar which symbolized a pillar of fire. By night, God took this symbol to lead and guard the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. I’m kind of reminded of this by the depiction of the Archangel Gabriel as a column of light.

As I am writing this in honor of the Annunciation (March 25), I am also reminded of another image of Our Lady and the conception of Christ: that of the Burning Bush. God spoke to Moses through a bush that appeared to be on fire but yet was not consumed by the flames. This is a type, a symbol that foreshadows Mary. God overshadowed her as he did the bush, she conceived Jesus and gave birth to him while her virginity remained intact, unconsumed. I love this image and have an icon depicting this hanging on my wall. Maybe one day I will write a post about the Burning Bush icon. I believe that I read somewhere that a large icon hangs in a Russian fire department in Moscow or another large city, maybe St. Petersburg.

This painting of the Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner is a powerful window into the moment at which Mary gave consent to become the Mother of God. The intensity of what is happening is captured by the light that pervades the image. I think it’s the warm light, the realistic details of first century Palestine, and the sweet humility of Mary that really make this painting one of my favorites. We owe a debt of gratitude to Tanner for this beautiful work of art.

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